Prince William announced last week his engagement to Kate Middleton, apparently some long-anticipated news. Not that I would know, since this is not an area of current events I follow closely. Still, the buzz about William’s upcoming nuptials was inescapable and instantly made me think of the Grand Canyon.
I don’t claim to know that much about William. I imagine he’s a right fine bloke and as “normal” as any young man could be growing up in the bubble of the British royal family. (His father Charles, on the other hand, comes across as a genuine cold fish and more than a little flakey.) The one thing about William that I do happen to know, more or less, is when he was born.
In June 1982, my future wife and I were on one of those epic cross-continental road trips that are a mainstay of many a Hollywood film. I remember thinking of it as my “Good Bye to America” trip. I was moving soon to Finland and didn’t expect to be living in the States again for some time, and I wanted to see as much of my homeland as we could before heading across the Atlantic.
For three weeks, we crossed the southern tier of the US in my beat-up vomit-yellow Toyota station wagon, vagabonding from Georgia to the Pacific shore. We pitched our tent in the mountains of New Mexico, the desert of Arizona, and the redwood groves of California. Some nights we spent (not very comfortable or safe) just sleeping in the car, parked in picnic areas in Texas, Utah, Colorado, and most glamorously once in a parking lot in the hills above Los Angeles -- from where we descended the next day to watch E.T. in a theater on Sunset Boulevard the week of the movie’s premiere. In short, it was a fantastic journey through some of the most amazing scenery on Earth, and easily one of the best trips I’ve ever made.
During those three weeks on the road, we were mostly cut off from the outside world, probably not picking up much news on the radio and only occasionally buying a newspaper. But, we did hear about Prince William. For some reason, I remember sitting at a picnic table on the Kaibab Plateau, a stone’s throw from the North Rim of the Grand Canyon, reading about his birth two days earlier, when we had been crossing the Sierra Nevada over a road only recently cleared of snow.
Ever since, the mention of his name often brings to mind that brief conversation I had with my future wife – amid a landscape of pinyon pines and awesome geological beauty – about a baby prince being born in London.
Now he’s grown and getting married, raising the specter of another wedding spectacular. His father’s wedding to Diana was, as everyone knows, a huge affair with a fairy-tale luster. That luster, as it turns out, was deceptive, but some female friends of mine at the time were so caught up in the whole frenzy over Charles and Diana’s wedding that they got up at four in the morning to watch it live. Some of us -- all males, I must say -- couldn’t understand the attraction or why Americans should care enough about a British royal wedding to lose sleep over it. We kidded our wedding-obsessed friends along the lines of “Didn’t we fight a war so we wouldn’t have to care about a royal family?”
Of course, the attraction was Diana. I’m sure our friends were not the only citizens of a republic to go a little gaga over her, showing that you don’t have to be a committed royalist to indulge in some good old-fashion celebrity worship when a beautiful princess is concerned. (And, once again at the risk of sounding sexist, I think it’s mostly a female thing.)
Probably it was the same in Finland. People here sometimes joke that Finland doesn’t need its own royal family since it can always borrow a neighbor’s to gawk at. Judging by the amount of attention that Finnish tabloids sometimes give to the personal lives of Sweden’s royals, you might think that Finns actually do yearn for a little of that pageantry. Princess Victoria, on her recent visit to Finland, was greeted by appropriately enthusiastic crowds.
In reality, Finland did come close to having its own royal family. After declaring independence from Russia, the Finns briefly chose to become a monarchy and even went so far as to invite a German prince to be its king. Frederick Charles of Hesse, brother-in-law of the German Kaiser, was king, kind of, sort of, maybe, for only 67 days before Germany’s defeat and the unraveling of its royal family at the end of World War I caused the Finns to have second thoughts. Frederick never even set foot in what was to have been his realm. Instead, the Finns elected to become a republic, the only one – along with Iceland – among the Nordic countries.
The only royalty in Finland nowadays is the Tango King or Queen chosen each year from among the country’s abundant nobility of tango singers in highly popular televised singing contests. As far as I can tell, they tend to be quite benign monarchs.